Mark Kellner

Duck, duck, goose: Three different approaches to covering Mormon church president's death

Duck, duck, goose: Three different approaches to covering Mormon church president's death

As a young journalist fresh out of college, I applied for a business editor position in small-town Oklahoma.

As part of the interview process, the newspaper's top editor asked me to write an obituary — for myself.

The exercise both tested my writing skills and gave me an opportunity to enlighten my potential boss on what made me tick. I guess I passed the exam because I got the job. (I drove extra carefully on the way home, hoping to avoid the tragic car wreck I had just described.)

Very few people get to write their own obit, which leaves the story of their life — if their life merits an obit at all — to others to tell.

I mention this because — even though I am not a Mormon — I was interested in how various major news organizations covered this week's death of Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wonder what Monson would have thought of the way these the following three ledes characterized him. (I'll reveal the source of each lede later in this post and pose a question or two.)

Lede 1:

Even as he ascended to the pinnacle of a worldwide faith, Thomas S. Monson never stopped being a Mormon bishop.
He was the same affable leader, folksy preacher and care-taking friend after becoming the LDS Church’s 16th president in 2008 as he was during his more than five decades as one of the faith’s 12 apostles.
During Monson’s nearly 10-year presidential tenure, which ended with his death Tuesday night at age 90 of causes incident to age, Mormonism faced some of the most intense public scrutiny in its history — from a divisive vote over gay marriage to high-profile Mormon candidacies for president, and a hotly debated policy for same-sex couples and their children. Still, the private prophet stayed largely behind the scenes, showing up unexpectedly at funerals, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick and, before her death, caring for his wife, Frances.
“With tender feelings we announce that Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died this evening at 10:01 p.m. in his home in Salt Lake City,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email Tuesday at 11:39 p.m. “He was with family at the time of his passing.”

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Friday Five: Trump's Christmas, Hatmaker's critics, Dallas monks, remote Catholic places and more

Friday Five: Trump's Christmas, Hatmaker's critics, Dallas monks, remote Catholic places and more

It's Friday again.

At least I think it's Friday. I've been on vacation all week celebrating Christmas, and I've mostly lost track of what day it is.

"Nobody knows what day of the week it is," John Mayer tweeted earlier this week. "Any attempt to answer is mere bluster and bravado. It’s just dark and not 2018 yet."

But I just checked the calendar and confirmed — just to make sure — that it's time for another Friday Five.

Here goes:

1. Religion story of the week: I'll admit that I haven't paid a lot of attention to the news this week — religion related or otherwise. Please refer to my earlier note about vacation (albeit not at GetReligion, which naps but never sleeps).

However, here's a well-done story I did catch (and highlighted in a post) from PBS: "How the 'war on Christmas' became a political rallying cry."

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Julia Duin has our most-read post of the week: "Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece."

 

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Not really new news: Immigration has affected churches in Canada (and elsewhere) for years

Not really new news: Immigration has affected churches in Canada (and elsewhere) for years

"There is no new thing under the sun," the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us in chapter 1, verse 9. While it's doubtful that said author was also a newspaper editor, it's a handy point for editors to remember, I believe. Too little of what is reported as "news" is, actually, "new."

These thoughts came to mind as I read a story in the Globe and Mail, Toronto's flagship paper whose reporters cover the whole of Canada as well as the rest of the world. "Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada," the headline reads.

Take a look at this longish excerpt to get a flavor of the piece:

Eli Wu brought his wife and teenaged son to Vancouver this past summer, emigrating from China in search of a better education for his child. He wasn't searching for God, but after arriving in Canada he found himself drawn in an unexpected direction.
In China, he said he didn't pay too much attention to Christianity, although some of his family members attended church. Organized religion was prohibited in China during the Cultural Revolution, but there was a revival of Christianity at the beginning of 1980s, when the government lifted restrictions on religion. Still, the Chinese government maintains some control over worship.
"In China, [things like] getting baptized and accepting legitimate Christianity are controlled by the government," Mr. Wu said. "When the gospel is discussed in China, because of some political factors, it cannot be [considered] too real."
The decline in the number of Canadians identifying as Christian is a well-documented and persistent trend. But among the people who will file into the pews for Christmas services are a growing number of immigrants, many of whom have converted to Christianity after arriving here, often from China.
New congregants such as international students come because church offers them support and community and an escape from loneliness. Others, like Mr. Wu and his son, come after experiencing Canada's religious freedom.

Here's the journalism problem: The fact of churches welcoming and accommodating immigrant populations is nothing new.

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Turn your radio on, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Maybe there's a holy 'ghost' at this radio station

Turn your radio on, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Maybe there's a holy 'ghost' at this radio station

There's no denying that the media world continues to undergo changes at just about every level. And while it's rare, sometimes those stories include what we GetReligionistas call a holy "ghost" -- a nonreported (or underreported) religion angle

The reality of one such "ghost" shows up over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where the story of a local AM radio station's pending demise caught my eye. KQV-AM, an all-news station for 42 years, will cease broadcasting at the end of the year, the paper reported.

It wasn't until a reader gets nine paragraphs into the story that some curious words emerge, phrasing from owner Robert W. Dickey, Jr., suggesting there may have been something else involved than just reading headlines and reaping profits:

As FM became the primary radio format to hear rock or other music, KQV in 1975 became one of a number of stations nationally switching to an all-news-all-the-time format. Mr. Dickey’s father, the late Robert W. Dickey Sr., was a station manager who got financial backing from billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to form Calvary Inc. and purchase the station from Taft Broadcasting in 1982. ... 
The news format, due to the salary costs of the necessary number of reporters, editors and announcers involved, is much more costly than music programming on radio, Mr. Dickey said. At the same time, the media industry in general has been suffering from a drop in advertising by major retailers and others. Mr. Dickey said he did not consider a format change at the station because of his family’s longtime focus on delivering news as a mission.
“We perceived the world of reporting on the news as a sacred one,” he said. “What made this worthwhile is not that we were making money, but that we were doing something important.”

Having hung around radio people in New York City at around the time KQV-AM switched its format, I can tell you that few newscasters would've described their work as a "mission" or "sacred."

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Taxing theology? Washington Post does pretty solid reporting on exemptions for big Utah families

Taxing theology? Washington Post does pretty solid reporting on exemptions for big Utah families

In journalism, sometimes it takes an outsider to provide an inside look at a community, such as the one I reside in and commute through daily.

Today's example is a Washington Post story about the uncertain impact of pending tax reform legislation, headlined in part: "In land of large families, deep uncertainty over impact of tax overhaul." (The original URL for the story inserts the word "Utah," followed by a comma, between "in" and "land.")

Let's drop in on the story, shall we? The key: How did these political-beat reporters handle the religion details in this topic?

AMERICAN FORK, Utah -- This is how Becca Riding, mother of five, thinks about the tax changes speeding through Congress: Will she and her husband still be able to pay swim team fees for Emily, 13, and Caleb, 11? Will Ainsley, 9, be able to go back to the week-long science summer camp she loved? Can their family still go camping once a year in a national park? And will it remain as affordable to give 10 percent of their income to the Mormon Church, as their faith prescribes?
Middle-class families like the Ridings have been at the center of the Republican message about why the party needs to pass a massive overhaul of the nation’s tax code. The Senate’s top tax writer, Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch (R), pledged that the legislation would bring relief to “hard-working American families and small businesses in Utah and around the country.” President Trump surrounded himself with families at the White House as he urged lawmakers to pass the bill.
But days before Congress plans to pass the biggest tax overhaul in three decades, the Ridings and other middle-class families are still seeking basic answers about the plan and how it will affect not just their pocketbooks but their everyday lives.

I currently have a day job in Lindon, Utah, a few miles south of American Fork, through which I pass morning and evening. (If someone throws a hubcap on the I-15 there during the afternoon rush, watch out.)

So I have some first-hand knowledge of the area and the community. The landscape is dotted with chapels and other facilities related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- generally one "ward," or congregation, for every 400 families. There's an LDS temple in American Fork, as seen in the image at the top of this post (Rick Willoughby via Wikimedia Commons). As with much of Utah County, immediately south of Salt Lake County, the area is heavily Mormon.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.

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Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Props are due to the Kansas City Star for noticing that some churches in its area are attracting, and not, apparently, repelling, the young cohort of worshipers that could be grouped under the banner of "millennial."

Indeed, the message is up front in the story's headline: "Bucking a trend, these churches figured out how to bring millennials back to worship."

Once a reader gets past a nice setup anecdote about one of the newly booming congregations, we get these salient points:

In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
But a handful, most notably, perhaps, City of Truth on the East Side and The Cause on the West Plaza, now cater almost exclusively to millennials.

This is a solid, well-reported story in which I can find few flaws to note. The Star is to be congratulated for this kind of coverage. Hence, you won't find any "big" journalism problems highlighted in this blog post.

So why write this post? As tmatt would say, "Hold that thought."

As readers find out from the story, City of Truth serves a largely African-American congregation, while The Cause's members are mostly white. The services times on Sundays may differ, but they apparently remain one of the most segregated hours in America, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed.

Such changes did not come without a price for City of Truth, as the story explains:

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New York Times trips on pope's 'Lord's Prayer' story, but Houston Chronicle recovers

New York Times trips on pope's 'Lord's Prayer' story, but Houston Chronicle recovers

If it is possible to be simultaneously perceptive and as dense as odium, which I believe is the most dense material on the planet, then The New York Times is our winner.

Someone decided to head a report on something Pope Francis is thinking about in this manner: "Lost in Translation? Pope Ponders an Update to Lord’s Prayer." Yes, the word "update" appears in the first paragraph, too, but I wonder if it's the right word to use.

More on that in just a moment. Meanwhile, take in the opening of this story:

ROME -- It has been a question of theological debate and liturgical interpretation for years, and now Pope Francis has joined the discussion: Does the Lord’s Prayer, Christendom’s resonant petition to the Almighty, need an update?
In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer -- “lead us not into temptation” -- was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.
“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”
In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”

My first journalism problem is that word "update." We are, after all, talking about the meaning of words taken from scripture, words ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, no less. I'm not at all certain the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is into "updating" Scripture.

It may seem like a minor point, but words do matter. What I believe the pope is suggesting is perhaps a revised translation, but that's not an update, is it? Is the actual issue a matter of translation?

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Yes, there's a religion 'ghost' haunting news coverage of Kate Steinle's family and faith

Yes, there's a religion 'ghost' haunting news coverage of Kate Steinle's family and faith

The tragic shooting death of Kathryn "Kate" Steinle on a San Francisco pier some 30 months ago stunned the nation and help inspire some of the rhetoric in Donald Trump's 2016 White House campaign. At the end of November, a San Francisco jury failed to convict Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who was in the United States illegally, of either murder or manslaughter, setting off another firestorm.

That's the public story. But what of the personal story, the family story? Steinle's family has been vocal about their loss in 2015 and, to an extent, the verdict in Zarate's trial. But, both in 2015 and now, there's what we at GetReligion call a "ghost" -- a missing religion angle -- hovering around the edges of coverage discussing how the family is making sense of the senseless.

The journalism issue: For a profession so keen on detail, I've found multiple instances of reporters not asking the kind of "who, what, when, where, why" questions normally answered in such reporting. It's downright puzzling.

Most recently, the San Francisco Chronicle, via editorial page editor John Diaz, gave us some insights. Even though the piece appeared on the opinion pages, it reads very much like a news feature, since no "opinion" from Diaz or the paper is expressed there.

So here is my question: Where is the hard-news coverage of this angle of the story in the mainstream press, especially in papers out West?

The Chronicle headline stated: "Exclusive: Kate Steinle’s family talks about the anguish and frustration." The passage relevant to this discussion appears more than 20 paragraphs into the story:

Now and then an acquaintance would angrily suggest that Kate’s killer should be executed and ask: “What do you think, Jim?”

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The New York Times finds some acceptable Bible-quoting pastors. Guess their politics!

The New York Times finds some acceptable Bible-quoting pastors. Guess their politics!

I'll admit to some snark with the headline, but bear with me.

Despite the editorial caterwauling over any diminishing of the so-called "Johnson Amendment" barring political endorsements from the pulpit, a reporter at The New York Times editors have found a posse of Bible-quoting ministers they can "endorse" with a favorable news story. But you can quickly see which side of the political divide these preachers are on, and that's a journalistic problem.

"Ministers Look to Revive Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poverty Campaign," the headline reads, and it's the kind of feel-good story -- from one perspective, at least -- that newspapers like to report. Here, after all, are a group of clergypersons willing to risk arrest for public protests against a piece of economic legislation, in the nonviolent tradition of the late King.

Read this longish excerpt to get a flavor of the piece:

When 12 religious leaders in collars and vestments were arrested last week in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, they were reading Bible verses about caring for the poor, and doing it so loudly that their voices could be heard at the doors of senators’ office suites nine stories above.
It was to little avail: The Senate went ahead and passed a tax bill early on Saturday, promoted as relief for the middle class, that mainly benefits corporations and the rich — and that many economists say offers little or nothing for the poor.
The middle class and its discontents have occupied so much political and media attention lately that poverty has been crowded out. But some prominent religious leaders are gearing up for a campaign to try to put it back on the nation’s agenda in a way that it hasn’t been in decades.

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